by John Franco
When the Pirates traded for AJ Burnett this off-season, they weren’t sure what they were getting. Following an 11-11, 5.15 ERA season with the Yankees in 2011 that was even more frustrating than the numbers make it look, Yankee GM Brian Cashman was happy to send the Pirates $20 million to take Burnett off their hands.
When Burnett joined the Pirates, he wasn’t sure what he was getting either. The Pirates were in first place as late as July 25, but faded badly down the stretch to finish 72-90 on the year. Upon joining the Pirates, Burnett said ”They’ve got a young, good team here and coming on back to the National League, it’s going to be fun again. I’m also looking forward to getting back to where the game is fun.’’
With a record of 14-3, and a 3.19 ERA after today’s win, it’s safe to say Burnett has exceeded the Pirates’ wildest expectations.
With a record of 61-46 and the lead in the NL Wild Card race, it’s likely the Pirates have exceeded his as well.
Burnett’s win against the Reds on Sunday showed his value to the Pirates. After two tough losses to the division-leading Reds, the Pirates desperately needed to avoid a sweep. Burnett held the Reds to just three hits through 8.2 innings, and even though he needed Joel Hanrahan to bail him out in a rain-soaked 9th inning, his job was done. He might not want to be called a stopper, but that’s what he was today, and that’s what he’s been all season.
Of course, stopping the momentum of a 19-year losing streak takes more than just a few good starts, and as good as Burnett has been on the mound, he’s been even better off of it. From taking James McDonald under his wing to the enthusiasm he shows on the bench when he isn’t pitching, Burnett has been a key component in the transformation of the Pirates’ clubhouse. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and the fans have embraced him as an ambassador for the team. For a fan base that still bears the scars of last season’s collapse, having a reliable stopper plays an important role in making sure it doesn’t happen again.
And when you think about it, ending a 19-year losing streak requires a pretty big stopper.